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Monday, January 05, 2009

the revolution of ugly men

Events in Mainz in 1792 (continuing the thread broken off before I went to mexico)

In 1792, Georg Forster had ended up in Mainz, a city in Hesse. The region had become a conflict zone between the French revolutionary armies and the various armies of the coalition formed under the terms of the Brunswick manifesto, to rescue the ancien regime, i.e. the house of Bourbon.

Forster was overworked as the head of the archive and library. At the beginning of 1792, he had not taken a public political stance, although in private letters he expressed a clear sympathy for the Jacobins. He was hiding from his wife Therese the exact extent of his indebtedness, which was crushing – Georg Forster was never a prudent man when it came to cash.

Therese seems to have been emotionally and intellectually of the left. Geiger, her biographer, in 1909, found this so scandalous that he tried to mitigate it by claiming that Therese was Forster’s ‘pupil’. It was far more likely she was his comrade. This marriage and its failure has attracted a host of commentators who have puzzled themselves over the fact that Therese left Georg for another man, and yet the two seemed to rely on each other even after the separation. The solution – that their sexual incompatibility did not hinder their affinity with each other on the basic level of friendship – seems too shocking to propose – especially for those who want to tell a story of betrayal. But Therese seems to have cared for Georg, although she didn’t love him.

The man she did love was Ludwig Ferdinand Huber, a Prussian official and intimate of Schiller. Therese met Huber through Forster, in 1788. In 1790, Huber was living with the married couple. Therese was moving in a direction taken by her mother – who lived with her lover in the house of her husband:

We stood in a doubtful relationship one to another for 1 ½ years. In the beginning I pushed him away, everything now came together, he wanted to forget [his relationship to his fiancé, Dorothea Stock], and a miserable doctor pulled him away from the border of the grave. The noble, humane Forster saw a lot in the young man, drew him nearer, I became used to him, he saw me for a year and went through all the gradation of feeling, my unhappiness strengthened my love for him – although I though of none – finally circumstances offered a hand. I don’t know in which moment, before we could guess ourselves, he had exposed to me his relationship with that girl. I pondered the thing and found decisively the result: he must confess to her that he didn’t love her any more, that time had changed his feeling, that he had no more rights upon her heart. … “ As Therese says, it took 2 ½ years for Huber to come to this point.

Some biographers have said that Therese Huber used her status, when Forster was dead, to suppress much of the information about what was happening in Mainz in 1792.

If the scene was not loaded for an explosion yet – a disaffected couple, sickly children, an overworked world famous intellectual, the French revolutionary army in the area, the wife’s lover in the house – into this scene came Caroline Michaelis.
Why Therese would invite her school friend Caroline, lately widowed, to stay with the household in Mainz is a puzzle. Or perhaps it isn’t – perhaps Therese, out of fairness, wanted Georg to have a lover too. Although Georg was not sexually faithful, apparently he had sex in the approved way, with lower class girls.

Caroline was of course as strong willed as Therese. Caroline’s letters from Mainz give another account of the Forster-Huber household. It is a sign of how narrowly the circles intersect that he chief correspondent was Meyer, the writer who had been Therese’s admirer – who “took” her virginity from her, according to Therese in an ambiguous reference. Surely Caroline knew about that. Even before she went to Mainz,she had written to Meyer: “I have never depended on her friendship – among women, there can be none.”

Soon Caroline is writing in a more sympathetic way about Georg. In particular, she writes a letter linking the ugly men of the revolution – Mirabeau, ostensibly – with her own “beauteous” figure. Strikingly, Caroline “reads” herself into her situation – which has forever been the subject of speculation – with Georg by reading Mirabeau’s famous at the time letters to his lover, Sophie, of which she writes to Luise, her correspondent, that she should read them, except that she imagines Luisa won’t have time, and won’t read in bed, being more inclined to sleep, and is too “good” for a “ugly monster” [hassliche Bosewicht] as the extraordinary Mirabeau was, who had virtues and talents enough to supply a thousand normal people, and too much true intelligence to seriously be a monster, as one can conclude out of particular features. He may have been ugly, he says that often enough in the letters – but he loved Sophie, for women certainly don’t love the beauty of men – and yet the ugly man imposes himself through his exterior on the unruly masses…”

We remember, of course, the striking ugliness of Georg Forster. And that, too, of Chamfort. A revolution of ugly men.

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